I’m not sure if the band Everclear is a “one hit wonder.” I’m not really sure what qualifies a band to have that moniker. Like, what are the metrics for that?
Regardless, their most popular song was on heavy rotation when I was a teen. Their rock anthem, “Buy You a New Life” is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about being poor and having unrealized dreams. The song is an ode to the artist’s daughter, a promise that he would “buy her a new life” that looked nothing like the one he had growing up with an absent father and overworked mother.
My favorite lyrics in the song happen right at the beginning where the band takes privileged religious folks to task:
I hate those people who love to tell you
Money is the root of all that kills
They have never been poor
They have never had the joy of
A welfare Christmas
Do you know the “joy” of a welfare Christmas?
I remember one time when I was working in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago as a middle school teacher, one of the church members of the parish where the school was located shook their heads as they saw one of our families drive up. It was the early 2000’s.
“An SUV,” they said with contempt, “and this family is on welfare…”
What he didn’t realize, of course, was that if that mom wanted to get a job without white folks like him looking down on her, she had to drive up in a car that worked, looked nice, and didn’t throw off any red flags. What he didn’t take into consideration was that the single mom who worked two jobs to afford that car did so because she wanted her kids to be accepted without question.
And yes, she wore the same dress every time we had a parent-teacher conference. It was her nice dress. Respectable dress. Her power dress for a society that deemed her powerless because she was a woman of color, a single mom, a renter, a…name one of the ways we denigrate people.
He didn’t get the point.
In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, we find Jesus on the run from the crowds. He had just fed them, a story colloquially known as the “feeding of the 5,000,” and they had their hearts set on having him rule them.
But Jesus, kinda knowing that they wanted to make him king (we always are looking for a leader to make things right, right?!), hops on a boat and sails away. So the people give chase, and when they catch up to him, they want him to give them bread again. You know, like he did before.
Jesus, though, says that miracles do not a savior make, and instead claims that he is the bread of life, and that they should seek after him and not some bread that would be moldy in a bit.
When preachers typically talk about this text they usually lift up the spiritual nature of it all, and how those greedy people just wanted a handout from Jesus and didn’t really get his message.
And my question for those preachers, for you, is this: have you ever known the joy of a welfare Christmas?
We are so quick to look down on this crowd for wanting food out of Jesus, but food was not easy to come by in the ancient world.
And, if we’re honest, for many it’s not easy to come by today!
I know why people who can’t afford fancy cars or clothes buy them. They know that nothing lasts in this world, they’ve seen it in their own lives and hearts, and so if you have it you gotta use it, or else it’s gone.
I explained this mindset, explained to me by those students and families who taught me so long ago to reframe my white, middle-class worldview, to a very kind colleague of mine who, without skipping a beat said, “I don’t think that’s true. They could open a savings account. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
And then he sipped his $5.00 latte.
What if this story about Jesus being the bread of life is less about spiritual hunger, and more about the idea that, if you’re following Jesus, you won’t allow your neighbor to go hungry?
I mean, what if the people aren’t misguided and are simply hungry, and their community, a community who had just experienced miraculous generosity, didn’t quite get the picture yet?
Perhaps when Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and will never be thirsty again,” he means that the community that forms around the message of Christ is one that will always, never hesitatingly, never waveringly, feed others and provide good, life-giving water without thought of cost, without an inkling of merit, without ever uttering, “do they deserve it?”
See, I don’t think this text is about the people in the story. I think it’s about most of us reading it who have “never known the joy of a welfare Christmas,” most of whom can’t really contemplate what it might mean to be actually hungry and not just on some Keto diet. Who haven’t given up bread for the carbs, but because we can’t afford it.
And look, I’m not suggesting we start a bunch of feeding programs…I mean, those are good and all…but what if following Jesus meant you looked at why folks are hungry in the first place and start to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening in the world. Like, what if Christians became known for advocating for great employment, wages that are livable, education that is affordable, food that is healthy and shared (not hoarded), and clean water that is a priority not a PR issue?
Geeze, it’s almost like following the one who claims that being next to them will ensure that hunger and thirst are “no more” might lead people to do some very radical things in this world.
That almost seems to be the point…
Anyway, that’s probably where I’d go if I were preaching this week.